By Laura Smith
Deadline reporting is something every journalist faces. It is the stress of knowing the clock is ticking and there are merely hours, in many cases minutes, of counting down till copy is due. But of course there is the added pressure to not only finish the story, but to make it good and worthy of the readers’ eyes. It must be interesting, captivating, and entertaining in order to create a productive work of journalism. It also does not report, it aims to tell a story. Talk about pressure!
Leonora LaPeter of the Savannah Morning News meets all these requirements in her story, “Jury Sends Santa Claus Killer to Electric Chair.” The first way she creates a great story under pressure is through her strong lead, another common thread of deadline writing. It reads, “The jury had left. The sentence had been read. Jerry Scott Heidler’s face was still as stone.” Not only is she creating an intriguing lead however, but she also sets the scene of the action and the story she is about to talk about. In this case, the story is about a family dealing with the recent announcement that one of their members will be put to death for murder.
Continuing with this idea of scene setting, LaPeter does this when she describes Heidler in the courtroom. She writes, “sitting at the defense table surrounded by six guards, his hands and legs shackled, Heidler shook with the force of his tears.” This gives imagery of a tense situation to the reader. Next, LaPeter incorporates dialogue from the courtroom between the people into her story. This is much more effective than straight quotations. The reader can see LaPeter spent a good amount of time on this story, getting her facts straight, and creating a story. It only added to her talent to know that she did it all under a strict deadline.
Another example of deadline reporting is “Tragedy Beyond the Imagination,” by Washington Post writer, Tamara Jon. Profiling the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Jon tells the story through the accounts of student, Mike Pohle, and his experiences right before he was killed. True to deadline reporting, Jon creates a story out of this tragic event in order to create a lasting memory to readers about what had just happened only days prior.
First, like LaPeter’s story, Jon introduces her story with an enticing lead. She describes a game Pohle and his girlfriend, Marcy, would play. Then she shocks the readers with this: “He was 23 when he was killed in his Monday morning German class at Virginia Tech.” This shocking lead sets the audience up for what is to come. Next, Jon describes the events that lead up to Mike’s death through the experience of Marcy and not hearing from him on that day. This storytelling gives this piece of deadline reporting seem even more real and recent, as it had only take place a few days before.
Another example of deadline writing is Robin Gaby Fisher and Susan Livo’s story, “At First Surprise and Then Support,” of The Star-Ledger. Fisher and Livo wrote their story under deadline about former New Jersey Governor’s, James E. McGreevy, resignation from office after partaking in a homosexual affair. Fisher and Livo report from the scene of his news conference. They paint a picture of a guilty and embarrassed man confessing to his wrongdoings. They include direct commentary and descriptive emotions. This can be seen in their description of McGreevy’s wife, Dina. They write, “A frozen, vague smile never left her face during the late afternoon news conference in which the governor stood before more than 100 reporters and laid bare his personal secrets.” Fisher and Livo also get direct commentary from McGreevy’s friends who share their opinions on his newfound sexual orientation. They also choose to end the story with a friend’s commentary, bringing the report full circle.
“A Whole Town is Gone,” written by John Balzar in the Los Angeles Times is another great example of talented deadline writing. His story details the effects of a huge fire that destroyed much of Cuyamaca, California. Balzar does a wonderful job of giving his readers a picture of the major extent of the damage, never mind he was writing under a deadline and most likely did not have much time to write. He describes a scene where, “The ground was too hot to sift for memories. Live flames clung to the undersides of large branches. The road in was closed, endangered by falling trees and collapsing power poles.” Like the other writers, Balzar incorporates conversation (between evacuees and police officers) as well as dialogue between the homeowners affected by the fire. Balzar also adds a unique twist in that he adds some positivity to the end of his heartbreaking article. After being told that the homeowners are going to stay in Cuyameca despite the fires, Balzar reiterates one of their answers. “Of course,” she says. “This is the very best place.” Ivan shrugs and adds, “Only crazy people live here.” He smiles.” Balzar then adds, “For just a moment, there is something in the Cuyamacas to smile about.”
Another good example of deadline reporting is David Maraniss’s story, “That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under,” published just days after the Virginia Tech massacre in The Washington Post. Like some of the other stories, Maraniss highlights the personal stories of different students and their experiences on that fateful morning. In this case, he focuses on numerous students’ experiences. Like the other stories, Maraniss incorporates conversation between his characters. He also gives imagery to the reader. At one point he says, “One after another, the students came in. Gunshot to the leg. Bullet hole in the stomach. Gunshot through the liver, part of a kidney and colon.” Maraniss’s story is long and written with such detail, one would find it hard to tell that it was only written three days after the shooting. Maraniss’s story is a remarkable piece of not only deadline journalism, but also literature that really pulls at the reader’s heartstrings.
Finally, Brian Thevenot and Manuel Torres’ story “Flooding Wipes Out Two Communities,” show talented deadline reporting in their Times-Picayune article on the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Written just days after the hit, Thevenot and Torres write through New Orleans resident, Jerry Rayes,’ perspective while he picks up survivors on his boat. He writes, “As Jerry Rayes piloted his boat down St. Claude Avenue, just past the Industrial Canal, the eerie screams that could barely be heard from the roadway grew louder as, one by one, faces of desperate families appeared on rooftops, on balconies and in windows, some of them waving white flags.” Now if this lead does not pull a reader in, I don’t know what would. Throughout the article, the writers continue this graphic imagery. They are able to create a story all while giving the reader an update of the horrific situation seen.
All these stories are prime examples of what deadline reporting is all about. It is bringing a story to life through characters that the reader can relate to and details he or she can understand. What makes it more impressive is that these stories are written in the heat of pressure and stress. They are written to meet a deadline all while giving the reader an emotional and informative account of a situation.